Last week I talked about the feeling of back pressure that comes with playing oboe. As we play, we can’t blow all our air through the tiny opening in the oboe reed, so extra deoxygenated air builds up in our body. The pressure of the extra air builds up over time and that’s what is often referred to as “back pressure”. It’s inherent in playing the instrument, and can be really uncomfortable.
Focusing the air (as I discussed last week) is only one part of the equation, though, the other side of coping with the back pressure is releasing that deoxygenated air from your lungs regularly. Today I’m going to introduce you to the Puffing technique.
What is the Puffing technique?
The Puffing technique is my name for the technique oboists use to release the deoxygenated air from their lungs. All oboists do this, but not everyone calls it Puffing. I think I got this name from my first oboe teacher Mrs. Grover.
Puffing is when an oboist exhales in the middle of a phrase. Let me clarify: it’s an exhale without an inhale immediately following. This technique sounds simple, but can be complicated for the player to master. Our bodies are used to breathing in immediately following an exhale of any kind, so you’ll need to train yourself to only breathe out.
Why do oboists need to puff?
As discussed last week, unused and deoxygenated air builds up as oboists play. Puffing does two things at once: 1. it gets rid of the extra useless air and 2. it relieves some of the pressure that builds up. We need to get rid of the extra air molecules and the pressure they exert in our bodies to make room for enough fresh air in the lungs to keep the body oxygenated.
As you experiment with this concept, you’ll notice that you can play longer phrases without rests more comfortably.
(Note I say more comfortably…a piece written for strings or piano will NEVER feel as comfortable to play as a piece written for oboe or voice or wind instrument. Even if you’re not running out of air or building more pressure than is comfortable, the lack of break is exhausting for the embouchure.)
Play the melody of Menuet in G by JS Bach below. Every time you see the letter P, open your mouth and exhale a bit of air, then continue playing until you reach the breath mark (an apostrophe). Breathe in on the breath mark.
The first time you try this exercise, play VERY SLOWLY and don’t worry about breathing in time with the melody. This will give you time to exhale only and continue playing. At first, you’ll feel like you’re holding your breath - you are! Over time, we want you to be able to puff in time with the melody.
Eventually, you’ll write puffs into your music any time you need to release some pressure (in the middle or towards the end of a long phrase), and you’ll be able to play violin music without too many issues after a little bit of breath planning.
This week's Newsletter subscriber bonus included a link to a video lesson with me demonstrating the puffing method, and a downloadable pdf with two additional melodies to help oboists experiment with the puffing method. I invite you to subscribe to the newsletter so you don't miss any other subscriber bonuses! Published weekly, the Oboe 101 newsletter goes deeper into topics than this blog. I hope you'll join us!